The Innovators

Kuli Kuli: A superstar of superfoods

Kuli Kuli Foods
Processing moringa powder in Benin.

This 12-part series highlights women-led ventures in the green economy.

Nestled in downtown Oakland, California, sustainable food and agriculture startup Kuli Kuli has roots more than 7,000 miles away.

Founder Lisa Curtis was introduced to the moringa tree while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Niger. A vegetarian whose local diet consisted mainly of millet and rice, Curtis was able to curb her malnourishment, a lack of protein and key vitamins by adding moringa to her daily regime. Her health turnaround sparked an interest in introducing the benefit of the moringa plant to North American eaters.

When Curtis returned from Niger, she and her co-founders began creating food products from sustainably sourced moringa leaves. They started producing health bars in small batches and selling the goods at farmer’s markets. Today, the product line — which includes teas, powders for shakes, health bars and energy shots — is available in more than 6,000 stores.

Moringa is not your come-and-go food fad. It’s difficult to directly compare to any one plant. Like kale, it’s a green superfood, yet richer in nutrients; the taste profile is similar to matcha, which comes from specially grown and processed green tea leaves, with an earthy, mild flavor. On the shelf, you likely will find it next to other superfoods such as goji berries.

Moringa contains a wide range of nutrients and attractive attributes, including iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, highly digestible protein and all nine essential amino acids. Also, it’s vegan and free of soy, gluten, dairy and genetically modified organisms.

Agriculture, food and related industries represent about 5.5 percent of U.S. GDP, contributing around $992 billion each year. Transforming this industry to be sustainable and regenerative is one of the biggest opportunities to address climate change while creating economic opportunity.

If the goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet today’s food needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, then cultivating carbon emissions-free and regenerative agriculture products such as moringa is an imperative. Project Drawdown found that in aggregate, agricultural solutions were more impactful to reverse global warming than energy solutions. As climate change continues, droughts are becoming more frequent and more acute, and sea-level rise is leading to salt intrusion inland. Moringa, native to the tropics, thrives in drought-prone regions and can tolerate salt. Simply put, moringa is climate-smart.

Kuli Kuli is a benefit corporation that has partnered with more than 1,000 farmers and planted more than 1,000,000 moringa trees. Through its supply chain, the company has provided more than $1.5 million in income to women-led farming cooperatives, nonprofits and family farmers.

Passionate and visionary

Curtis is passionate about economic development, woman’s empowerment and healthy eating that is good for the planet. She serves as a visionary and co-creator to the employees at Kuli Kuli. At the office, Kuli Kuli has a special gong that they bang to celebrate small and big wins. The company vibe is a mixture of hard work, collaboration and appreciation. "There is a culture of gratitude where we end each meeting by expressing appreciation for other people's work," Curtis explained.

Kuli Kuli’s supply chain reflects a dual purpose: first, to provide a climate-smart crop for vulnerable communities that can be sold for economic gain and used directly for nutritional needs, and second, to offer a nutrient-dense green that encourages a plant-based diet in the United States.

To achieve these goals, Kuli Kuli partners with three co-manufacturers and over 1,000 farmers across more than 40 farms. It employs nine fulltime staff members in Oakland and a large part-time field team, including more than 20 people who are in charge of product demonstrations and 30 or so sales representatives.

The staff at Kuli Kuli are mission-driven: four out of the nine full-timers are former Peace Corps volunteers. "Because we are pioneering a new ingredient, we look for people who have shown that they have picked things up quickly and are willing to do that again," said Curtis.

In addition to evidence of leadership, illustrating an interest in sustainable agriculture is an important hiring criterion for Curtis. She looks for applicants having internship or volunteer experience, such as through an organization such as WWOOF, or even joining a community food group to understand seasonal produce. While certifications are involved in the industry — such as a food handler’s license and a Preventive Controls Qualified Individual, a designation that conforms to U.S. Food and Drug Administration health standards — these certifications are not a pre-requisite and such skills are provided on the job at Kuli Kuli.

The heads of marketing, sales and operations at Kuli Kuli all have more than 10 years’ experience in the natural foods industry and at least a bachelor’s degree. Curtis’ approach to human resources is, "You find people who are smart and talented, teach them what they need to know and allow them to run with it." Kuli Kuli hosts both three-month internships and six-month fellowships, and the 16 people that have gone through these programs are all gainfully employed, both at Kuli Kuli and other organizations.

"A lot of people have come to us through the press," noted Curtis, who has received several honors as a young entrepreneur, including being named a Forbes "30 Under 30" among social entrepreneurs for 2018 and a similar "30 Under 30" honor from GreenBiz in 2016.

Kuli Kuli Is backed by a number of philanthropic and for-profit investors, including InvestEco, S2G, Kellogg’s eighteen94 Capital, the Clinton Foundation, Village Capital, Brad Feld and Mary Waldner. With its recent investment round of $4.5 million, Kuli Kuli is in growth mode — and is hiring talent. Curtis doubled her staff in the last year and is looking to hire up to four full-time operations and sales members in 2018.

Women-led startups received less than 5 percent of venture capital in 2016, according to PitchBook. So, while getting press may come relatively easy for female founded ventures, "being a woman CEO makes fundraising a lot more challenging," Curtis noted.

As a former lead of a cleantech practice within an investment firm, I’ve seen the disparity up close. Getting cleantech investment is difficult; adding on a layer of women leadership unfortunately opens up more conscious and unconscious bias. I credit Kuli Kuli’s success in the risky business of food innovation to three traits: a unique product, Curtis’ perseverance and early-stage investors willing to take a bet on a climate-smart innovation.